A Masterclass with David Lang

Whirling Dervishes

First Impressions

Friday, Cora and myself had an opportunity to present the violin concerto to an audience in the Kevin Barry Room at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. I’ve never been in that room before. It was a nice surprise – a big old room with a lovely acoustic and some great speakers. We presented our third movement – “The Dance of the Dervish”.


composers David Lang and Ciarán Hope

David Lang was wonderful. I had no idea what to expect. I had done a lot of listening to his music over the past week and fallen somewhat in love with Mountain and Concerto (world to come). He was very complimentary and very insightful. The big takeaway was that we should be determined in our intent to use authentic Arabic drummers. David felt that this philosophy in particular will contribute best to the life of the concerto which he said he believed would be a success for us. It was honestly very sweet of him to be so polite and nice about the piece. He was opinionated in a nice manner for the entire masterclass, so I can only hope he would have said something more if he had a genuine problem with the piece.

Film Music versus Contemporary Music

We also discussed the contrast between working in film and for ourselves. We laughed at the experience of being under the thumb of someone who can fire you compared with writing for yourself where you can’t be fired. It was an interesting conclusion that we reached, in that we should look carefully around us to discover who can fire us and who can’t! I was mentioning that there is also a kind of creatively divergence (in my eyes) in the sense that the freedom to do what one wants comes with its own consequences. As composers we really need to create some boundaries during the creative process so as to control a potentially infinite writing duration!

Tradition versus Originality


composers David Lang and Ciarán Hope

David spoke about being careful with music when we dip our toes in any traditions or styles. It was a very good point to suggest that if we are not careful as composers, people can often judge the music harshly and say we are not being ‘authentic’ to the tradition. If however, we take ‘aspects’ of the tradition and do our own thing with them, that is quiet different. For example, using an Arabic drum but not playing Arabic style with it. I was very comfortable with this view, because in our case I felt we have taken an Arabic scale (Lydian flat 7), and a Sufi rhythm (Saghezi) and used them as thematic material for a movement in an orchestral piece. The Sema dance, the Sufi practice of whirling or meditative turning through which dervishes aim to attune with God, has been passed down since the 12th century, as have the Sufi music, sacred chanting, poetry and the etiquette of the tradition. Cora and I have definitely been inspired by these traditions and chosen to use them as a launching point for the inspiration of the music and its thematic evolution.

The Role of the Commissioner

During the masterclass, David also had an interesting chat with Cora about the role a commissioner plays in the process. He was very interested in the fact that she spoke about playing Arabic music styles with Yurodny and her wish to have an Arabic flavour within the concerto. He also shared a philosophical view that he sensed a commissioner was possibly commissioning a piece because they may have looked at the repertoire available to them and at some level felt unsatisfied with what was there and thus wanted to explore possibilities. It was a deep philosophical perspective. In essence:

Why is there a desire for something new at all?
What drives that desire in us?

Reflection on the Music

The great mystic poet Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi

I made my own mini discoveries while preparing for the class and observing the various themes in the movement – The Dervish theme, the Whirling theme, the Chaos theme…

I suddenly realized that there was amazing synergy between the themes, their response to each other and their frequency of entry. It was particularly obvious after marking them in yellow highlighter on the page!

I remembered that the Chaos theme ultimately attempts to pull the violin through various closely related maqam as the battle begins for the consciousness of the melody……

I remembered that the Dervish theme symbolically represents a Dervish getting ready to partake in the meditative Sema dance ritual.

My own level of clarity on the music was also nice to sense. I think Cora and I can both say that we came away from the talk with David with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and belief in the journey we are on together…

Sema is to struggle with the notion of one’s self,
like a dying, bloodstained bird, fluttering in the dust.

– Rumi


About musicman

- composer specializing in transforming lives via beautiful music and unconventional and ideas....
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